The setting for the Spring Beer Festival, hosted by the venerable Capitol City Brewing Co., could easily have been marred by lingering rain and plummeting temperatures, but Bacchus himself appeared to intervene for a few hours. Revelers were provided instead with a temperate haze stretching into the early evening. And revelers there were aplenty, peaking mid-afternoon but never overwhelming the setting. Boasting a wide selection of regional brewers (and even some wine and cigars), the Spring Beer Festival gave the people what they wanted: good beer, surprisingly good food, and half an entire neighborhood all to themselves.
Spring Beer Fest 2016
April 30, 2016
Arlington, VA (Shirlington)
Host: Capitol City Brewing Company
If there was any one hitch to the day, getting into the event itself may have been that lone gripe. Our first surprise was a cash only ticketing system which sent a lot of people fanning out to find ATMs. I completely understand why as that’s just money taken from the host/planner’s overhead, but a little heads up in the advertising would’ve been greatly appreciated. If you read our 2016 events preview, you may have already noticed the second surprise. Whereas the online flyers for the event listed the entry as “$30 for tickets” we weren’t entirely sure if that meant that was the total cost or just the upfront fee. Turning out to be the latter ($30 got you 10 tickets, and every additional $10 an additional five tickets), this sent more than a few grumbling attendees back to the ATMs. Given the location was a cordoned off portion of one of the most posh Arlington neighborhoods, and a heck of a lot of coordination to get the volunteers, food trucks, and so on in place, the actual price didn’t strike as unreasonable. Again, hopefully just a small lesson learned that communicating those sorts of items up front can be really helpful for planning purposes.
Shirlington parking is always notoriously difficult to come by, but shame on any Arlingtonians who didn’t plan for that eventuality.
Little glitches aside, the lines moved quickly both for tickets and for booze. Beer insurance (a lanyard with a little loop to hold your tasting glass) could also be had for $5, and the “glasses” themselves were plastic which made sense as the event was held over asphalt and brick sidewalks. To the event’s great credit, ticket prices for beer pours were uniform (one ticket always equaled one sample). The food trucks and other vendors also brought a lot of diversity, even if the cigar tent meant an overriding aroma to the proceedings after the crowd hit peak levels.
The 35 advertised breweries ranged from Maryland down to the 757, and the only “national” brewery depends on your current definition of Devils Backbone. While the exact list was hard to come by without dredging up individual postings on Twitter, we were genuinely surprised by some of the smaller establishments which made the trek. I had looked forward to retrying or expanding upon the offerings of some of the far flung breweries which attended VCBF last August, and indeed newcomers from outside NoVA just about stole the show. For every stalwart such as Port City a new(ish) joint such as Ornery (Woodbridge) proved a match. Each brewery had a rep or two somewhere in attendance even if volunteers were doing the actual pours, and in some cases this was helpful as it freed up the brewers or staff to chat and answer questions. I spied several brewmasters and owners sampling each other’s wares to the extent that two of them were seen walking off in a most flirtatious manner later on…
Best in Show: Habañero King of Hop, Starr Hill (Crozet, VA)
On a day which best seemed to match Porters and Stouts, this seemed as close a thing to an upset as one experiences in beer. A number of brewers brought their A game, oftentimes with both an old stalwart and a new, hyped offering to grab your attention. If Starr Hill had followed that trend we might have seen something like Northern Lights or Jomo and then mayhaps the new Citrus Wit, but the new gang behind the scenes instead brought two brand new beers. I’d heard good things about the Habañero version of the King of Hop series, and on this occasion I wanted to walk away with a pint, not just a little sample. A chat with the Starr Hill crew revealed the Hop blend as Cascade, Centennial, Simcoe, and Falconers Flight, and some not so tongue-in-cheek bragging that for the habañero infusion the team had used actual peppers rather than extracted oils. I had to agree that this approach gave all the flavor without a lot of the burn, and the result was a bright beer that segued evenly between citrus and spice. Starr Hill got a lot of publicity a few months back for their ambitious new release lineup, and this result at least shows that the early coverage was for good reason. Well done.
Honorable Mentions, Best in Show
Red Headed Step Child, Tall Tales Brewing Co. (Parsonsburg, MD)
Polish Porter, District Chophouse and Brewery (Washington, DC)
Scotch Ale, Adventure Brewing Co. (Fredericksburg, VA)
“Local food” in Shirlington could have meant anything; ringing the beer tents were more than a dozen restaurants of average or better quality. While a few establishments, including Cap City, did bring their wares out to the sidewalk for curbside sale, food trucks and other purveyors made up the majority of the food offerings. Options ranged from pizza to grilled cheese, sausages, egg rolls so large they were cut in half lengthwise for serving, burgers, and on down the gamut. Our bellies could only hold so much, but between our crew and our better halves we did taste a good portion of the options. Our winner was a certain food truck for which we got in line first thing and were in no way disappointed.
Best Meal: Urban Poutine
Unlike a certain famous crew busted on their way to Canada for french fries and gravy, my trek for poutine was beyond satisfying and in no way involved snozzberries. What is poutine? Start with the requisite french fries, amid a heap of gravy. Top it off with cheese curds, a sort of chunky cheese product that’s savory though not overly flavorful, and that’s your base. The geniuses behind the Urban Poutine food truck then let you top it eight ways from Quebec, and once I saw short ribs it was game over. The meat itself was succulent and fall apart tender – I cut it with that same plastic fork above. Just enough curds meant most bites got some cheese, and while the gravy had mostly been absorbed the last few fries had a nice bit to mop up. This is beer food.
Honorable Mentions, Best Meal
Mr. and Mrs. Jerky – homemade jerky and sausage
The Big Cheese – grilled cheese and other sandwiches
If the beer, food, and location weren’t enough for you, what started as a DC101 tent gave way after a few hours to a DJ, and it turned out the central portion of the venue had been left clear for a reason. Even if you’re not very good at math, alcohol + awkward people = dancing. The music selection was meant to provoke either years old group and line dances, or disdain. The latter is actually a good byproduct in this scenario whether you’ve got a beer or the aforementioned cigars in your hands…or in the case of a good number of bystanders, both. For my part, I could only shake my head at the out of sync wobbling which occurred, and use the opportunity to snag another taster as the onlookers snapped pictures for blackmail.
Any logistical snags encountered upfront were quickly overtaken by all the things that make Cap City events successful. It’s easy to spend a lot of money, sure, but if one assumes a $10 entry fee to help with setup costs, you’re basically paying $6/beer to hang out in public with a lot of friends. Getting some of the smaller breweries in attendance is what pushed my day over the top, as that’s what makes these festivals fun – comparing old to new, big to small, safe to daring. A solid way to kick off the main festival season.